August 12, 2009

Sorry for the long radio silence. My life can be summed up like this: Clear skies, pretty sunsets, rooftop yoga two evenings a week (spectacular view of homes and trees, hills and sky, minarets and church towers, rolling our shoulders open toward the sky, and final relaxation as the stars come out), street hockey once a week, hanging out on my veranda with its view over the Al Masyoon neighborhood (my favorite part of Ramallah) while one of my flatmates plays the oud (lute), swimming occasionally, meeting up with every friend-of-a-friend who comes through Ramallah (keep ’em coming!), and writing, writing, writing.

Also a few random jaunts like my recent trip to a concert in Zebabdeh by a traditional Arabic ensemble called Yalalan. It’s a group of twelve musicians — oud, buzuq (like an oud but smaller, longer, and twangier), and violin players, three percussionists, and six singers — managed by my oud-playing flatmate. Their ages range from twelve to twenty-nine, the violinist is blind, and one of the percussionists is African-Palestinian (from the small African community in Jerusalem — people whose African ancestors, decades before the founding of Israel, stopped in Jerusalem on the way to Mecca and decided to stay). The oldest and the youngest, the black and the Arab, the blind and the seeing all talked and joked together as friends and equals, with more easy unity than I would expect from a similarly diverse group in America.

Zebabdeh is a hilltop Christian village south of Jenin, and its lovely city hall park looks out over fertile valleys and tawny hills. The group sang songs from all over the Middle East, and the audience clapped along. The mood from the concert spilled over to the bus ride home, where they continued to sing and play the drums. I felt a bit jealous, as I didn’t know the words to any of the songs, but it was fun enough being an audience of one.

As soon as one song would peter out or come to an end, someone would start another one, and everyone would join in. They didn’t run out of material during the entire two-hour ride from Jenin to Ramallah, although the tempo slowed considerably after we stopped off in Huwara (the village, not the checkpoint — how nice it will be one day when the names of villages become more associated with the villages themselves than with the checkpoints near them!) to have kunafa (a sweet, cheesy traditional Palestinian dessert). Afterwards I still felt hungry, so I grabbed a falafel, too. I composed a rhyme in my head to remember a new rule I subsequently became aware of:

Falafel before kunafa,
you’re cool as Mustafa.
Kunafa before falafel,
never felt more awful.

Remember that, kids.

The only time they stopped singing was when we neared a checkpoint. My flatmate would say, “Khalas, ya shebab, fi machsom.” (Quiet down, guys, there’s a checkpoint.) (Qudsis, or Jerusalemites, tend to use the Hebrew word for checkpoint — machsom — instead of the Arabic one — hajez.) He always had to say it several times before they finally consented to muffle themselves, and as soon as we passed each checkpoint, they would burst into song again about how brave and fearless Palestinians were — making fun of themselves and their powerlessness in these situations.

In my experience, soldiers hate it when Palestinians sing at checkpoints. It makes them feel threatened somehow — maybe morally threatened, maybe they don’t like the cognitive dissonance, maybe they assume they’re songs of nationalism or resistance — and there’s no telling what soldiers will do when they feel threatened. It’s pointless to provoke them, at least at the moment. Who knows, though. Maybe the Third Intifada will involve a lot of singing.

About a week before that, I visited Atara, a village north of Ramallah, to watch a friend practice soccer with his local team. You have to pass the Atara checkpoint to get to Atara village (and the rest of the northern West Bank). Lately the checkpoint has been mostly open, and for the first time I took the turn-off to Atara itself instead of taking the other road toward Nablus. I figured after visiting the checkpoint approximately five million times, it was about time I visited the eponymous village.

It was lovely in the style of most villages near Ramallah — elegant stone homes, winding lanes, leafy trees — and the view from the soccer field was breathtaking. Miles and miles of hills and space turning pale rose-colored as the sun sank and the almost-full moon rose over the twinkling villages.

The soccer team was quite good, especially their passing game. My friend was the striker, and his powerful kicks and headers had the poor goalie quaking in his cleats. The pitch was a good-quality sand field, a soft kind of sand like they have in rodeo arenas, and it had been paid for in part by USAID. (Occasionally we get something right in the Middle East!)

Violence remains practically nonexistent in Ramallah. A few weeks ago I heard several loud bangs and thought, “Here we go again…” But it turned out to be fireworks. It was tawjihi time — the annual high school graduation exams — and kids who do well and have enough cash often celebrate with parties and fireworks. Even after tawjihi time, it’s normal to see fireworks several nights a week over the Al Masyoon valley for weddings and other events. As if Ramallah could get any prettier.

But as easy as it would be for me to enjoy life here and forget about the occupation, it’s still there, seeping into every mood and cutting the rug out from under you whenever you start feeling good again. Fatah policemen, trained by an American CIA school in Jordan, have been fanning out into a few towns, supposedly improving the rule of law but often targeting Hamas, making it look like an overtly political extension of the Israeli army — a subcontractor for the occupation. If no serious political movement occurs in conjunction with this ‘security’ improvement, Fatah will look even more like quislings. Easing a checkpoint here and there isn’t going to make a single Palestinian forget that the essence of the occupation is still growing.

Aside from workaday settlement expansion, there were recently a spate of brutal evictions in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem. The Israeli government kicked almost sixty Palestinians, mostly children, out of their homes and immediately handed the homes over to Jewish settlers. Many of the family members are now sleeping on mattresses across the street from their former homes, which are protected on behalf of the settlers by a heavy Israeli police presence.

The most ridiculous part is their reasoning for kicking the Palestinians out. The settlers claim they have a document proving the land once belonged to Jews. First of all, by most credible accounts, the documents appear to be forgeries. Second — are they serious? Do they really want to set a precedent where documents proving previous ownership by a certain religion or ethnicity means anyone from that religion or ethnicity can evict anyone who lives there now? Wouldn’t it then follow that Palestinians having documentation of previous ownership should get their land back, too? In that case, virtually all of Israel would be handed back to Palestinian refugees. (And God help us if any Canaanites, Hittites, or Jebusites turn up… or Romans, or Babylonians, or…)

Another case in point is my friend Rania’s situation. Six years ago, during my first trip to the West Bank, I met a Palestinian woman named Rania who aspired to a college education. She was from a small village and her family wasn’t supportive, but she found jobs with international NGOs, saved enough to pay for one semester of college, and enrolled herself, knowing that would probably be all she could manage unless a miracle happened.

When I learned about her efforts to educate herself, I made an appeal to several friends and professional contacts to help her finish her second semester, and then her third. After four years, she graduated with a degree in social work and psychological counseling. In the meantime she met and married a man named Sharif and moved to the Palestinian city of Tulkarem. By the time I arrived in Ramallah this summer, they had a one-year-old son named Karim and a daughter on the way. Rania and Sharif were in the process of building their new home a little at a time whenever they could save some money.

Sharif is one of the genuinely nicest guys I’ve ever met. He supported Rania through the final semesters of her education, he loves his son Karim (Sharif’s mother died while giving birth to him, so the idea of an intact family is novel and wonderful for him), and he changes diapers and helps with the cooking and cleaning. He has a great sense of humor and a disarming smile. He’s had a difficult life, and so has Rania, but things were finally looking up for them. They both adore Karim (trust me, he’s impossible not to adore), and Rania is ecstatic about having a daughter and giving her every kind of love and support she wished she’d had growing up.

A month ago, there was loud banging on their door around 1:00 am. Frightened, Rania asked who it was. They said they were Israeli soldiers. Rania knew they were there to arrest Sharif, though neither of them knew why. This is standard operating procedure for Israeli army arrest operations — entering homes in the dead of night when people are at their most psychologically and physically vulnerable. She had no choice but to open the door, knowing it would be blown up or knocked down if she refused. They asked if her husband was home. She said no. They asked if they could come in and make sure. Again, she had no choice but to allow them.

When they found Sharif hiding in the bedroom, they gave a loud order, and twenty more armed soldiers stormed in. They beat Sharif in front of his wife and son, called Rania a lying sharmouta (whore) while holding a gun to her head, and took Sharif away. He’s been charged with car theft in Israel, an absurd charge. He’s never been to Israel, though he had recently been given a permit to work in Israel. Rania said to me, “It is very difficult for a Palestinian to get a permit to work in Israel. Why would they give him a permit if they thought he was stealing cars?”

An Israeli friend of mine guesses it might be to pad their statistics on cracking down on car theft, or they might be trying to recruit him as a spy — offering to let him go if he will inform on his neighbors or extended family members. This is one of the most devastating tactics an occupier has for tearing the fabric of a society apart, sowing suspicion and division between neighbors and family members. How can a man be forced to choose between lying about his neighbors and family members, or spending a year away from his wife, son, and soon new daughter, knowing that without his support, they may not have enough to live on? He may be in prison himself because another man chose to falsely inform on him rather than pay this terrible price.

I visited Rania in her brother-in-law’s home in Tulkarem as soon as I learned about the situation. She can’t stay in her own home because she’s too scared to be alone. She can’t sleep because every time she closes her eyes she sees Israeli soldiers. Every time she hears a car outside she thinks it’s an Israeli army Jeep.

Because she and her husband have been putting most of their savings into their new home, she was left with only about a month’s budget when her husband was taken. She has been trying hard to get a job, but unemployment is bad in the West Bank even for people who don’t have a small child and aren’t five months pregnant.

She’s spent much of the past month crying. She says the worst is when Karim walks to the front door (where he’s used to seeing his father burst in and scoop him up and hug him after work) and says, “Baba?” (Daddy?) He doesn’t seem to be scarred by the violence he witnessed. His first birthday happened to be the day I visited Rania (Sharif had planned a nice party and to buy him a little car he could scoot around in)—he’s too young to understand what’s going on. He’s actually one of the happiest toddlers I’ve ever spent time with. But when he asks several times a day where his Baba is, Rania says quietly, “Baba fi sijin, habibi.” (Daddy’s in prison, sweetie.) It’s a hard thing to witness.

‘Prison,’ by the way, doesn’t carry the same stigma in Palestine as it does in America, given that most Palestinians in Israeli jails are held not because they are criminals but as a form of collective punishment, as political prisoners, as bargaining chips (sometimes Israel agrees to release a few hundred prisoners in exchange for some Palestinian concession or as a ‘gesture of goodwill,’ which makes them look generous to the Americans and the international community, most of whom don’t understand the true nature of the situation), or to recruit spies. The statistic that ‘only’ 10% of the 11,000 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel are held in administrative detention (imprisoned without charge or trial) is misleading. Many are in prison simply for belonging to the wrong political party. Rania’s husband was charged, but the charge is bogus, the Israeli court system for Palestinian prisoners does not meet international standards, and many Palestinians can’t afford the exorbitant lawyer fees.

It’s not a stigma — it’s just a massive violation of basic human rights.

During my visit, Rania kept asking me Job-like questions I couldn’t answer.

“Why does this happen to me? I am a good girl, I always do right. I love my husband and my child. Why do they do this? What right do they have to take my husband? Why do they have human rights in other places, but not in Palestine? How can I raise my children if I am alone? How can we have any security if soldiers can take my husband away any time they want, for no reason? I don’t hate the Jewish, but it makes it very hard for me to respect them when they do this. He is a good man, never any guns, no bad thing to anyone. He has had a hard life, but always he does his best. Why do they take him? If we do right and always bad things happen, maybe if we do wrong, something good will happen. I don’t know, I can’t imagine why the life is like this. What do you think?”

What can I say? “In my current understanding, they do this because they feel insecure (to an often delusional and self-fulfilling degree and/or as a post-rationalization for brute grabs of power and resources), and they have power and you don’t. They want to make life difficult for Palestinians so they will submit to Israel ’s dictates or leave. This is called power politics, or ‘Realism’ in American foreign policy circles.”

Does she really want a lecture on realpolitik?

“In my current understanding, you don’t have control over anything in this life but your own behavior. Behave with as much integrity as you can, and try to make peace with the things you don’t control. Unfortunately, you happen to have the short end of the stick when it comes to the things you don’t control.”

Of course I can’t say something like this to a frightened young mother. Not sure what else to say, I told her the story of Job (apparently it’s not in the Quran, unlike many Bible stories) and told her to take care of herself and her kids and be kind to her husband, that things would work out somehow, and in the end some good may even come of it (even though of course no one can guarantee any of this). It’s very strange for me to be in this position. I never imagined I would be trying to comfort a Muslim friend with Bible stories. I think more than anything it did her good just to be able to talk for hours about her fears and feelings. It’s ironic that she’s the one trained in psychological counseling. Part of me wanted to laugh and say, “Physician, heal thyself!” But it’s always different when it’s your own problem and not someone else’s. Just one more of the millions of stories of what the occupation means for the civilian population of the West Bank and Gaza.

Aside from the post-traumatic stress, she has some hard economic realities to deal with in the medium-term. If, as the family’s lawyer seems to think, her husband will be in prison for about a year, and if Rania doesn’t manage to find a job soon, she will be ten months without any way to support herself. Normally she would ask her family or her husband’s family for help, but most of them are either barely scraping by themselves (Israel has built the Wall around her family’s village, and it has isolated most of its land from its owners, forcing many to move out, find work in Israel or the settlements, or become charity cases), also in prison, abroad, or dead. It’s a miracle there is any sense of society left in Palestine, much less one as strong as it is.

I and some friends have pitched in enough to keep her going for another month and a half, and she has a couple of possible leads on jobs. If she didn’t have a university degree, she would be in an even bigger mess. As it is, the strangled economy due to the Wall and closures and the loss of her husband for a year due to the occupation nearly destroyed her young family, and might yet if she doesn’t find a job and I can’t gather enough money to keep her afloat through the birth of her daughter and the many months of separation from her husband.

I will help her out as much as I can, and if anyone would like to PayPal me $5 or $10 or $20 to supplement the effort, it would be very much appreciated. My PayPal account is pamolson02 @ yahoo . com. Needless to say, 100% of whatever you give will go directly to her.

Thanks so much.